I am honored to share a recent article I wrote that was published by eJewish Philanthropy. The essential – and far too overlooked- role that Jewish art and culture plays in Jewish identity is becoming clearer and clearer to me. Here’s the link to the article. And please add your comments to this important discussion. I’d love to read them.
Imagine a beautiful summer afternoon with an amazing world music band performing a free concert in downtown Boston. It’s a nice scene, isn’t it? But something very curious is happening. Listen closely and you realize the lyrics are in Hebrew. But how on earth is Hebrew being sun over distinctly Indian rhythms?
What the heck is going on?
Find out for yourself on Sunday, July 21 at 4 pm at the American debut of Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Gypsies, a unique band of Israeli and Indian musicians who produce what they call ‘world devotional groove music.’ It’s the grand finale of Boston’s first Outside the Box Festival, a new, free nine-day festival of over 200 music, dance, and theater events presented in partnership with the Boston Jewish Music Festival.
Everything about this is proving to be extraordinary.
Let’s start with the music. It is simply irresistible. Shye is an Israeli songwriter who fell in love with Indian music – more specifically Qawwalli music, which is a Sufi-based call and response style of devotional music. He moved to India, studied with Indian musical gurus, and started writing Hebrew lyrics to qawwali music. While I’m no expert, I am struck by the similarity in approach of this music to Song of Songs. The lyrics are about love and fulfillment only the beloved is often divine, not human. And don’t worry; Shye gives a translation of his lyrics in English before most songs. The sound is contemporary, accessible, and just makes you want to get up and dance. Personally, I think Shye is producing music as exciting as Israel’s other world music master, Idan Raichel.
">See for yourself in this video.
But what is proving to be just as extraordinary is how warmly this event is being welcomed in Boston’s Indian community. From Indian participants in a Google non-profit class I attended to the local coordinator of the American Indian Foundation to a Sikh community leader who is hoping to hold a community feast for the group to Indian sponsors including Deepak Chopra’s brother, the Indian community loves the music but is even more excited to showcase Indian:Israeli:Jewish cooperation. As a result, the concert is being made possible by support from both Jewish and Indian philanthropists, as I believe it should be. After all, if the music is a fusion of two great mystic and musical traditions, the funding that makes the concert possible should be multi-ethnic, too.
And that is what gives me hope. Like when BJMF began some 5 years ago, I’ve been spending the last few weeks introducing myself and this idea to people I had no clue even existed two months before. In high tech, finance, and medicine, there are so many occasions when Jews and Indians are working together and becoming friends. I never had an Indian friend. But I think I do now. And BJMF even has a very talented Indian intern, Jay Sharma, who will be working on our publicity outreach to the Indian community.
I think this event is an exceptional opportunity for all of us. Not only is it an incredible showcase for Indian and Jewish cultures, this concert is a living, breathing, creative representation of the type of tolerance, cooperation, harmony and creativity inherent in our traditions. The music –and performance– conveys a positive, universal message inspired by shared, almost universal, approaches to spirituality. It is an opportunity to inspire multi-ethnic study, collaborations and friendship. With music this great, the event will be celebration, not just a concert, enjoyed by thousands of area residents of all ages and ethnicities.
On the deepest levels, this entire experience fills me with hope, just like their music does.
BJMF thanks go out to Ted Cutler and the staff at Outside the Box for seeing the incredible potential of this concert and to the Israeli Consulate and our Jewish and Indian sponsors for making it possible.
Please plan on being at Boston City Hall Plaza on Sunday, July 21 at 4 pm to be part of this. Oh, and if you get hungry from all that dancing, there will be a Food Truck Festival going on at City Hall that afternoon, too.
See you there.
Guitarist Tim Sparks has released several beautiful albums of Jewish inspired music on John Zorn’s Tzaddik record label. One is called Little Princess, which is the translation of Kleine Princessin a klezmer classic made famous by Naftule Brandwein, a king of klezmer clarinet.
Hear just how different two musicians can make the same song sound. First, let’s hear Naftule (who was quite a rascal it seems) play it.
And here’s Tim’s version.
How does a guitarist decide to take a wild klezmer tune and reinterpret it as a lilting, almost lullaby stringed statement? Let’s ask Tim when he performs at Club Passim on Tuesday, March 5.
As we are about to launch the 2013 Boston Jewish Music Festival, I’ve been thinking a lot about the very concept of religious music. For instance, on March 3, the Celebrity Series of Boston is presenting the Eternal Echoes concert program of Itzhak Perlman and renowned Israeli cantor, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. BJMF is incredibly honored to be a marketing partner for this event and to sponsor a special reception with the artists after the concert. Yes, a limited number of tickets are still available by clicking here.
But my thoughts aren’t about selling tickets (at least right now they aren’t). I’m pondering just how universal is religious music. Does music itself open you to divine presence or do you have to be open to it? How spiritual an experience will this concert be for the non-Jew?
Personally, there have been several non-Jewish music recordings and experiences that I have savored both musically and mystically. Don’t get me started on the magic that happens in trhe Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. And hearing an old Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers live version of Nearer My God to Thee always gets to me. Hear it for yourself (stay with it…it builds each minute to an unbelievable climax).
And lately, I’ve been held rapt by a CD of hymns that jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas released. These were songs that his mother wanted him to play at her funeral. I hear God’s presence in every note though I wouldn’t recognize a hymnal from a science textbook. Well, that is an exaggeration. Hymnals do have musical notations and science texts doesn’t.
Two very different approaches to praying to God musically. Let’s try one more, one of ours.
Why do some of us only hear divinity in country gospel or qwaalii music, chazzanus or a Springsteen revival concert while others can hear it in all great music? If we really do believe that there is one God, then shouldn’t we accept the idea that the divine is present in so many different musical styles? Personally, I think music is one of humanity’s greatest gifts to God. Or is that the other way around?
What do you think? Of these three examples, what touched you? Why? Care to share a piece that speaks to your soul?
And lets talk about it and share all this and more here on this blog and at the festival, March 1-10.
The web site is live. The tickets are on sale. The brochures will be going to the post office this week. And the Third Annual Boston Jewish Music Festival is up and running. Obviously, we’re incredibly excited about the range and quality of the programs that have been planned. And, of course, we hope you’ll buy lots of tickets to lots of events (notice we eliminated as many service fees as possible). But allow me a few moments to share some of the little personal moments that have touched me.
First, you should have seen Basya Schechter’s face when I told her she would be performing her Songs of Wonder program in a shul where Rabbi Heschel frequently spoke and his daughter still belongs. It was a wonderful combination of fear and excitement and pride. Her concert will be incredible. As will her Kabbalat Shabbat in Sudbury.
I’m also blown away by how many phone calls we’ve been getting about the Hadag Nahash concert at Johnny D’s and the Andy Statman/David Grisman Opening Night at Somerville Theater. David will also be doing a master class at Berklee School of Music while he is in Boston. BJMF always tries to have our outr-of-town guests do something in the community besides their concerts. And most artists are all too happy to do so.
Lastly, I just want to tell you how much Jim and I appreciate all the kind words people offer us. So many people are so appreciative that Boston finally has a Jewish Music Festival. And not just any festival, BJMF is already considered a model of innovation, collaboration, and community building. Your simple ‘thanks’ and ”this was so enjoyable’ mean so much to us. So get ready. Clear your calendars. And be sure to attend something wonderful at the 2012 Festival.
The BJMF joins with so many thousands of others in mourning the loss of our friend and teacher, Debbie Friedman. Debbie helped open new doors in Jewish worship and practice; her music enabled thousands (dare I say even more?) to find their hearts in prayer and bring their spirits to Judaism in profound, personal ways.
Some scoffed at her songs as “camp music” and “touchy feely.” But her ability to join text and music and weave a melody that could be sung brought a new dimension to the synagogue for so many. More than any other person, she changed the course of synagogue music and congregational participation for generations. Her “Mi Shebeirach” and “Lechi Lach” are standards; indeed, it was the “Mi Shabeirach” that was sung across the country this past weekend to pray for the healing of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, shot by a gunman in Arizona.
Debbie gave voice to a generation of people who longed to infuse a greater spirituality into their Judaism. She combined the musical trends of the 60s and 70s with the traditions of our people in unique ways that enabled people to find themselves and community at one time.
And she was a talented and giving teacher to so many cantors, song leaders and aspiring musicians, always willing to speak and teach. She was a regular at each summer’s Hava Nashira conference, which brings together song leaders, cantorial soloists and Jewish musicians from across the country to learn and exchange from one another.
Despite her fame, she often came across as a simple and heart-felt person; some found her shy, and she could come off that way on stage. But she would be transported by the music, eyes closed, that smile on her face—a pose she often struck as she listened to the audience singing her words back to her.
A memorial tribute is being planned for later this month, with many of Debbie’s friends from the Boston area performing. Check back here for more information soon.
We will miss her terribly. But we will sing her songs for generations to come, and that will ease the pain in our hearts a little. The memory of the righteous is a blessing.
TABLET, an online Jewish magazine, has published their list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Songs. An intriguing subjective list, of course (one of the writers is a friend’s step son), that’s sure to start many an argument. For instance, including Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “I Gotta Be Me,” or Beck Hansen’s “Loser”, or Billy Joel’s “Anthony’s Song (I’m Movin’ Out)” seems stretching it to my mind. And they didn’t include a true classic written by BJMF Advisory Board member Cantor Jeff Klepper (and partner Rabbi Dan Freelander), “Shalom Rav.” Some might say it’s a shanda.
Regardless–the list is fun and runs the gamut from Rabbi Akiva to Amy Winehouse. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/hmk7X4
Let the comments begin!
I’m one of the lucky ones. I got to grow up in Mattapan, Boston’s last urban shtetl. My dad is the youngest of nine so I had an aunt, uncle or cousin on almost every street in a ten block radius. We left in 1969 so my 13 years young brother, Les, grew up in Brookline. His was a different world. Mine was all Jewish. His was eclectic, international. Mine was part of an extended family. For him, the family was already geographically over-extended. Growing up in my wRead More…